Quirks and Quarks

Wheat and potatoes in Nunavut? Climate change could bring agriculture to the North

A new study finds that most of Canada's north will be suitable for farmland as the climate warms. But researchers caution this could be disastrous for the area and its people if not done sustainably.

Study says farming could release 'gigatons' of carbon if not done sustainably

Farmer Dennis Gutschke stacks wheat. (Steve Begnoche/Ludington Daily News/The Associated Press)

Originally published on February 15, 2020.

A recent study shows that a warming climate could open up a new "farming frontier" in Canada's north.

But the authors of the study warn that developing this land in the "southern" style of agriculture could be disastrous for the area.

"Our worry is that that will have huge environmental — and potentially social — impacts," co-author Evan Fraser told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "So this is a cautionary tale, really."

In the study published in February 2020 in PLOS ONE, the international team of researchers looked at climate and weather models, and found that 4.2 million square kilometres of Canada's north could become prime farmland over the next 60 years.

"We see the the northern edge of soybean production and corn production creeping upwards at a bit from its current conditions," said Fraser, the director of the University of Guelph's Arrell Food Institute. "Almost all of the north becomes potentially suitable for producing potatoes or wheat, which for me was the jaw-dropping result."

A young man relaxes under the summer sun on top of a mountain over looking Iqaluit. As the climate warms up, areas like this could become prime growing territory for potatoes and wheat, says a new study. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

These new farmlands will be needed to help provide food to a growing population, however, Fraser warns that the Canadian government needs to be careful about how it approaches development of this land.

"Our population is growing and many people say that we're going to need globally 70 percent more food by 2050, 2060 just to keep up," said Fraser. "Looking into the future we need to be, as a global society, thinking about all the possible ways we have of producing food in an efficient way."

'The terrible scenario'

There could be terrible costs in opening up this land for farming. If all of this potential farmland is developed — in Canada as well as around the world — then, according to Fraser, "gigatons and gigatons" of carbon would be released into the atmosphere.

"We have to realise that the boreal forest and the peat soils up north are some of the biggest carbon reservoirs on the planet," he said. "If we start imagining a scenario where we, one field at a time, start cutting those trees down and ploughing those fields, then we will have the potential of releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere"

A farm tractor and baler sit in a hay field on a misty morning near Cremona, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

He also cautions of the affect on biodiversity, and hydrological impacts, which would lead to toxic agricultural runoff heading into the Arctic Ocean. 

"I just want to make sure that ... we don't simply just take a southern form of agriculture, that then results in boreal forest being cleared, wetlands being drained, soybean fields being put in for a few years while we exhaust the thin soil, and emit a lot of carbon into the atmosphere as a result."

"That would be the terrible scenario."

'Guided by principles of sustainable development'

Fraser's biggest concern is for the Indigenous communities who currently live in these areas.

"Not only do we have to be mindful of the environmental consequences, we also have to put indigenous governance and community empowerment at the centre of that," he said.

The researchers suggest that action be taken now so that if it's decided that we develop some of this new land, we do it in a sustainable way, in order to learn from past mistakes, and perhaps make the most of this growth opportunity.

"By being more participatory and deliberative and putting northern communities at the centre, guided by principles of sustainable development, we can we can be much more proactive about how this this process can unfold," he said.

"We can do this in a way that's responsible."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz